Annals of Class War: The Impound Lot

Over at Time, David Scheff wrote a great piece this summer about income inequality and one of the places it shows up that you might not think about: The impound lot. I’ve never had my car towed, but I definitely know people who have. In almost all of those cases, what happened next was pretty basic. Their cars were towed, they went to the impound office, they paid the fees, they were given their keys, and they drove away. Sometimes it was a bit of a hassle — the office wasn’t open when it was supposed to be, they had trouble getting there (because impound lots are often hard to access via public transit), or other issues, but it was fundamentally understood that they would get there in a timely fashion and get their cars back.

They wouldn’t face escalating storage fees. They wouldn’t lose their cars at auction. Getting impounded would be a pain in the butt, but also kind of a rueful story — yeah, shouldn’t have parked there, I don’t know what I was thinking, I knew it was a tow zone and I thought I would get away with it.

That’s not how the story works out for everyone, though.

…we don’t often hear about the countless quieter injustices suffered by tens of millions of Americans on a daily basis. They experience inequities of access to opportunities, quality medical and dental care, quality education, healthful food, affordable and safe housing, childcare, credit, psychological counseling, legal representation, insurance and more. For them, events that others weather unhappily but routinely—a towed car, for example—can lead to a crippling spiral of stress, debt, joblessness, illness and, in many cases, incarceration.

Well, those who don’t read certain kinds of media don’t, at any rate. But, point taken — by and large, many people do not understand the issues that face low-income, working class, and unemployed people, and they don’t get how something that seems ‘simple’ can actually spiral into a horrific mess that completely ruins their lives.

When Scheff’s car was towed, he was able to pay the $72 ticket and the impound fee ($400). When he left the impound office, though, the people still sitting there were trying to pull together funds by any means possible to manage fees that had been racking up during the days they couldn’t pick up their cars because they couldn’t afford it, because they were forced to focus on getting to work because they feared missing their jobs, because of any number of other reasons. He met people who took out exploitative loans to get their cars back, even knowing that the interest was unreasonably high and they’d be paying for a year or more. He met people pleading on the phone for help from friends and family, hoping that they could scrape together enough money to pick up their cars. He met people without access to conventional credit, who couldn’t just put it on a credit card and deal with it later.

Welcome to the world many people in the United States live in, one where a single event can prove to be a tipping point, the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Scheff saw a microcosm of that world in the impound lot, in an experience that clearly shook him, because it’s a world that lies hidden from so many middle and upper class people — like so many of my friends, who dealt with impounds quickly and easily because they didn’t face the hardships that others do. His experience sparked a great deal of thoughts about inequality and how it feeds further injustice. How a woman who can’t pick up her car can’t get home to care for her children. How a man who can’t get his truck can’t run his business. How these events interconnect to create a financial and personal crisis that has potentially serious ramifications — losing your job, becoming homeless, having your children taken away.

People with money often judge those without, claiming that they need to work harder and focus in order to improve their lives and get out from under the yoke of poverty. What they do not understand is that the system is stacked against poor people. That it was specifically designed that way, and that it continues to be that way, because the whole point here is not social justice, but in fact, just the opposite. The point is to keep some people in positions of subservience, and others in positions of power.

A $72 parking ticket is a lot — for reference, people earning the federal minimum wage take $290 home every week before taxes. If you’re looking at impound fees on top of the parking ticket, you’re looking at weeks’ worth of wages, which people don’t have, because they’re unable to save when they’re living from paycheque to paycheque. Even assuming that someone is working multiple jobs, is putting in overtime hours, it’s still highly likely that impound fees will exceed a single week’s worth of income. If people can’t pull those fees together, they can either give the car up — losing mobility, and potentially losing their jobs — or they can try to access funds through friends, family, and loan sharks.

While they scramble for money, the impound fees rack up. The expense grows, the burden increases, and they’ll be paying it off for weeks or months. This is the world we live in, one where people who make mistakes are punished far out of proportion for them if they are low-income. It’s not unreasonable to have parking tickets, to attempt to control the use of cars and available spaces in urban environments (though if such systems are going to be in place, there needs to be a clear system of accountability for where that money is going…many cities have no idea where that money ends up). However, the cost of such tickets needs to be reasonable, as do impound fees. When a rich person and a poor person face the exact same fiscal penalty, it has radically different financial and social impacts.

Someone with thousands in the bank can casually shell out a few hundred for a parking ticket and it’s no big deal. Someone with pennies in the bank can’t — and that’s what makes the system unfair. Proportionality has been thrown out the window.

Photo: Auto Salvage Heaven: Waiting In Line, Phil’s 1stPix, Flickr